Thursday, July 31, 2014


I addressed counterspells in D&D previously when I wrote a "Spells Through the Ages" for Dispel Magic (link one, two). It's a confusing and easy-to-miss issue in older editions -- and it is highly coupled with the round sequence in any edition -- so I'd like to address it once more. Most of the language quoted below is from the dispel magic spell in the various editions.

Chainmail Fantasy -- Of wizards it is written, "The stronger magician can successfully cast a counter-spell with a two dice score of 7 or better... A counter-spell fully occupies a magician's powers.". Now, is this just another spell (against previous enemy castings), or an interruption ability (preventing a spell from being cast in the first place)? While Chainmail (and thus D&D) presents two different options for a movement turn sequence, neither addresses exactly when missile (or spell) determinations are made -- in each case players share a single undistinguished "missile fire" phase without further comment. It's within the realm of possibility that within that phase, it might be permitted for one player to declare a spell, and the other player to respond with a "counterspell", canceling the original casting, but it is not precisely spelled out in the book. However, you can see a problem might arise with both players delaying to see what the other does first before making their decision -- more likely determinations would have to be made in the order of movement, and then only the second-declarer would really have the option of an interrupting counterspell.

Original D&D -- The dispell magic spell says, "Unless countered, this spell will be effective in dispelling enchantments of most kinds...", clearly referring to the possibility that the dispel itself fails its percentage-based success roll. There is no other indication that the spell can be used in an interrupting manner.

Basic/Expert D&D Rules -- The Moldvay-written dispel magic spell uniquely does not include the word "counter" at all. The phrasing here is "remove spell effects", and again there is no hint of interrupting usage whatsoever. Note that in these rules and all those below, there are clearly distinguished cycles where one side and then the other gets to act and cast spells, etc. (spells are definitely not cast together in one phase as in Chainmail/OD&D).

AD&D 1st Ed. -- This version of the spell clearly states, "It will destroy magic potions (they are treated as 12th level for purposes of this spell), remove spells cast upon persons or objects, or counter the casting of spells in the area of effect." So that third clause seems to indicate something different, but it might be interpreted as either an interruption effect, or simply use against area-effecting magic (as opposed to persons or objects; which is how I read it in those days). This language is expanded in 2E, so I will address it further below.

AD&D 2nd Ed. -- Dispel magic here includes the description, "First, it removes spells and spell-like effects (including device effects and innate abilities) from creatures or objects. Second, it disrupts the casting or use of these in the area of effect at the instant the dispel is cast. Third, it destroys magical potions (which are treated as 12th level for purposes of this spell)." Now clearly, the second case is an interrupting-type ability, and it's a legitimate interpretation that 1E might have meant the same thing.

However, a problem arises: both versions of AD&D require that spellcasters specially commit to spells to be cast at the start of the round, before initiative is rolled, and before they have any knowledge of what the enemy is doing (including enemy spellcasters). So it would seem that a caster would need to cast dispel magic blindly, not even knowing if the enemy was casting any spells at all in that round, quite likely wasting the dispel. Moreover, dispel has a casting time of 3 segments (6 for clerics), so technically there's all kinds of ways that the enemy could finish their casting and avoid the interrupt even if dispel is being cast in the same round. Thus it seems like an almost impossible tactic, to burn off a dispel while simply crossing one's fingers that the enemy is in fact casting some unknown magic that round (and one that doesn't complete too fast).

D&D 3rd Ed. -- In what I might interpret as a reaction to the difficulties surrounding the AD&D rule above, 3E creates an entire 7-paragraph rule subsection just for counterspells. (See the prior "Spells Through The Ages" blog for complete text; link). In short, interrupts are specifically allowed and supported; but they require that the interested wizard target one specific enemy caster in the round, and only if that target does cast a spell can the wizard potentially interrupt with a dispel or other counterspell. In all other cases (target does not cast; anyone but the target casts; target casts a niggling spell unworthy of a dispel) the wizard has simply wasted their action for the round, an enormous loss of effectiveness. While this seems at least conceivably feasible at first glance, the disadvantage is so keen that I rarely saw it get used in 3E (excepting the case where the whole party was fighting one lone enemy caster, such that the party wizard could safely devote his or her action to locking down the one enemy's magic, while the rest of the party beat them physically).

Conclusions -- The interrupting-style "counter-spell" in D&D went from unmentioned (0E, BX), to vaguely implied (1E), to fully but problematically allowed (2E, 3E). It's conceivably workable in the Chainmail/0E rules with its shared missile phase (granted various interpretations and arguments), but seemingly not really feasible in the separated turn sequences of BX-1-2E. The 3E tried to solve this problem, but in a way that I still found lacking.

Moreover, every time I try to wrestle with the explicit 3E-style counterspell, it aggravates me that this spellcasting uniquely corrupts the turn sequence with interrupting actions. In my last game the countering usage came up again (the language is in my Book of Spells v.1, descended from the 3E SRD), and what happened next is that I forgot that the player's action was used up when we came back around the table of 9 players. Therefore, granted (1) the effective absence of counterspells in classic 0E-1E-BX, (2) the unique corrupting effect on the turn sequence, (3) the enormous amount of text required in later attempts to make it work, and (4) the fact that no version of the game really successfully made it a workable option, I've recently decided to strike it from my game (and my Book of Spells description for dispel magic).

How much would a ruling like that affect the games at your table?


  1. I think if I wanted the effect, I'd just have a spell that has a duration of one round (or a few) and makes the target unable to cast spells. Basically, a spell that explicitly works the way Silence is often interpreted to work.

    1. Personally, I think I'd go with some very short (as you say, maybe 1 round) "magic shield" defense, a la globe of invulnerability. You do see a lot of art where one wizard shoots energy, and an opposing wizard blocks it with a magic shield mid-flight. That's one thing D&D's never simulated.

  2. I would love to use counter spells in the game, it sounds so cool. I have never heard of a good implementation though, I was so hoping you had a clever rule for this.
    When we played AD&D I did not realize you could use dispel magic that way, so I never used it.
    I think of all the versions 1st edition is the one I would use. Action wise it’s no worse than 3.x, you waste your whole round to counter spell. Rules wise it’s the least confusing, or destructive to the flow, if you want to do it, you just do it on your round. The down side is you have to waste your spell. Perhaps rather than use a spell, add a counter spell ability to the wizard, some sort of opposed roll with a reasonable chance of success.
    The problem is, it seems cool, but faced with some chance of stopping an opposing action (and maybe completely wasting your turn), versus doing something positive yourself, the latter sounds better in most cases. When you throw in the fact that most people don’t play a wizard to hang back and be passive/reactive, you end up with a mechanic that never gets used.

    1. I fully agree, it sounds cool at first blush. Like there's some kind of fancy "wizard battle" mini-game you can play out -- but in the existing turn sequence I've never seen it work. Better to just discard it, I think now.

  3. You could have a system where a wizard can counter spell by casting (any) one of their spells on their turn. Then the target of the spell, or all casters in a radius if you prefer, have their spells cast that round potentially countered. This would require the wizard to win initiative (which I like), so it would work better in a system where you roll every round. If you don’t roll every round, you could have it stay active until the wizard goes again the next round. I don’t think I would inform everyone what the wizard casts when they cast counter spell (not sure if you do that, when an opposing wizard casts something with no immediate effect do you inform opposing wizards/characters what they cast?)

    The exact power of the counter spell could be handled a number of ways. It counters a spell of it’s level or it’s level + d6-2. Maybe it counters spells of it’s level or less and spells up to twice it’s level have their saves made easier, or a save completely eliminates effects rather than ½ damage. Maybe spells of the same school work better as counters etc etc etc.

    Not sure anyone would take advantage of it, but it would be a simple mechanic, with no interrupts. On their turn the wizard tells you they are countering, scratches off a spell, tells you the level of the spell, and they are done.

    Not sure what in game effect it would have, it would give all the apprentice wizards something to do through. This ends up looking more like a shield than the wizard duel of the source material.

    1. Interesting. One problem is that as DM I'd be in a position of having information that I'd have to pretend I don't have to decide on NPC actions fairly (i.e., powerful spell or negligible thing).

      Good question: I don't directly state the spell an NPC is using, but I do speak out loud coded "magic words" on the casting. To date no one's deciphered it, shhhhh... :-)

  4. AD&D works fine. You cast a Dispel Magic at the enemy group to remove their spell protections, destroy their potions, and as a side benefit you also cause casting to fail if it hasn't gone off yet.

    In the same way that fireball also destroys things and stops spells being cast, it's just that the main effect is removing protective spells rather than doing damage.


    I handle Wizard duals with retroactive counters. If you're hit with something you don't like, immediately dedicate your next action to casting it's opposite, a barrier spell, resistance, or a dispel. Thematically, the enemy Fireball hangs in the air as your Cone of Cold battles it into submission.

    Anyone who gets out of range of the counter effect before it's finished casting suffers the original effect as normal. Self-only spells used as counters only save yourself, not any other targets, and so on.

    1. Well... in principle the effect you get sounds great and is very attractive indeed. However, my distaste for retroactive effects wins out in the end (and managing them with large numbers of players at the table).

      It's an interesting interpretation that 1E dispel magic might get all of those effects at once, I'm more accustomed to interpreting it as countering just one single effect per casting (following the "or" connector in the text).

  5. Note that there isn't even any description in AD&D/D&D/"Basic" of a Magic-User even being able to determine what spell is being cast! In fact, that information would potentially be very useful to the party, assuming they were able to react in the time period it takes to finish the spell.

    Anyway, counter-spells don't really feel like a D&D-like concept to me. If D&D had been written with a Mana/SpellPoint system, I could see that an elegant numeric system could be used to rule on spell/counter-spell efficacy. But Gygax seems to be very anti spell point - probably because his model was Jack Vance's Dying Earth series.

    Actually, saying that, maybe it might be worth scouring the Dying Earth stories to find an example of a counter-spell being used, and use that as a good ruling!

    1. I agree, those are all good points. And actually, I don't recall a single example of that happening in the Vance stories. Although clearly Gygax did include something like that in Chainmail...